29 June, 2008

Sunday Sensational Science

Accidents sometimes lead to glorious things, especially in science. Consider Sir Alexander Fleming and the mold that contaminated his bacterial experiment - penicillin. Penzias and Wilson, employing Bell Labs' ginormous new antenna as a radio telescope, got driven batty by a uniform background noise that didn't go away even after they chucked out the pigeons - cosmic background radiation, the remnant of the Big Bang. Antoine Henri Bequerel needed bright sunlight in his hunt for x-rays, but after he'd gone to all the trouble of sprinkling his crystals of potassium uranyl sulfate on a photographic negative, Paris got cloudy. Bored off his arse, he developed the film anyway - and discovered the existence of radioactivity.

Science history is full of those chance events, happy accidents and lucky juxtapositions that open up whole new vistas. And I mention this because of my own happy accident - I discovered an incredible site celebrating the sheer beauty of science because I was looking for an interesting equation to illustrate COTEB #2 with.

Paul A. Titze runs Wizlab.com, an extraordinary place filled with glorious science photos and quotes. Opening that page instantly kicks the sense of wonder into overdrive. Science and art aren't separate entities there: science is art, and I don't think I could've been struck any harder by awe if I'd stepped into a gallery full of the greatest paintings, sculpture and poems in human history.

You know those moments when your breath catches, and a smile takes over your entire self? I had one of those, all the way down the page.

He's captured it all: the beauty, the power, the philosophy and the sheer poetry of science. Why do we do science, what meaning does it have beyond the practical considerations, where did it come from and where is it going - all of those questions and more are answered there. I'll never have to explain why I love science ever again. All I have to do is give inquirers a web address. If they don't leave there awestruck, I'll know that nothing I could possibly say is ever going to explain how science feels to those who truly love it.

Paul Titze's no mean poet, either. Along with the evocative quotes from centuries of sensational scientists, along with the incredible photos, graphs, and animations, you can find his lines:

For I marvel of countless wonders in this Universe, and wonder,

Will the milky ocean reveal its secrets at such faraway isles,

Will the Lighthouse Keepers help me answer the riddle,

And if I lose my way, follow the Wandering Albatross, he knows the way.

-from "The Riddle"

And then there's the equations.

I was going to use this one for COTEB, but decided to filch the Mandlebrot Set instead. I found a lot of pictures of Maxwell's equations that were bracketed by Genesis in my searches - this photo says more. Can you hear it?

Science sings on this site. Lash yourself to the mast before you head over there, my darlings, or you may never return.


Anonymous said...

gorgeous. makes me want to get to the lab and get something done on a sunday, despite this being my tea and pajama day.

linked here from pharyngula, really enjoying your blog :)

Efrique said...

If those equations have anyone going "huh?", they're Maxwell's Equations (see the second column of the linked table, though the notation differs slightly).

These describe how electromagnetism operates.

Cujo359 said...

I'm ashamed to say that it's been so long that I barely recognized them. It's perhaps not too surprising that Maxwell's equations are accompanied by quotations from Genesis so often. They're elegant equations that, at one time, seemed to explain everything. One could almost be excused for thinking that there really was a well-managed universe out there.

Of course, then Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg came along, and most folks got over that.